As Democratic Uprisings Spread Through Middle East, Palestinians' (Unreported) Hunger for Reform Is Repressed

Palestinian activists, isolated by Israeli military checkpoints and walls, are connecting through Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone networks.

A large banner with a caricature of President Barack Obama hanging from a balcony overlooking Ramallah’s Al-Manarah Square on March 15 read: “He said: freedom to the Tunisian people. He said: freedom to the Egyptian people. He said: freedom to the Libyan people. But he did not dare say freedom to the Palestinian people.” 

Building on the momentum of the revolts that are spreading across the Arab world, Palestinian youth erected a protest camp in downtown Ramallah, as well as cities across the West Bank and Gaza on March 15. These young and politically non-aligned activists, unable to meet due to Israeli military checkpoints and walls, are connecting across the Occupied Territories and Israel through Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone networks. 

The so-called March 15 Movement is calling for the restructuring and convening of elections of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the release of all political prisoners in PA and Hamas jails and Palestinian national unity.  

After hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City and thousands across the West Bank took to the streets in protest last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to meet Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza.  

One of the key figures in the March 15 Movement is Fadi Quran, who along with nine others began a four-day hunger strike the day before the protest. He says the PNC is not representative of all Palestinians, and that “systemically it will lead to division,” like the current four-year standstill between Fatah and Hamas. Quran believes that if Abbas and Haniyeh meet, the leaders will attempt to form a power-sharing agreement, shuffling positions and dividing seats among the parties. 

Abbas and Haniyeh have yet to agree on terms for meeting. Abbas is calling for the formation of a transitional government to prepare for elections. Since Hamas would likely receive a small minority of the vote, losing its hold over the Gaza Strip, Haniyeh has little incentive to back elections right now. Haniyeh insists on meeting for reconciliation talks.  

The March 15 Movement 

Currently Palestinian activists are pausing to see if the leaders’ plans will bear fruit. Nonetheless, it is clear from speaking to activists like Quran that the toppling of President Mubarak in Egypt and President Ben Ali in Tunisia has revived a sense of hopefulness among Palestinians. 

“After today things won’t be the same,” Quran said during Tuesday’s protest. 

But Stanford-educated Quran is also pragmatic. Asked if March 15 would be the Palestinians’ January 25 moment (the first day of massive popular demonstrations in Cairo), he responded, “I think things here are such that the changes we’re demanding will take a longer time to implement. In Egypt, the call was for Mubarak to step down. We can’t make that call [in relation to Abbas] right now.”  

PA Security Response 

President Abbas has negligible support from his public, and since Al Jazeera’s release of the Palestine Papers confirmed suspicions that the Fatah-led PA has been pandering to Israel (mainly by allowing settlement expansion, abandoning the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and backpeddling on claims to parts of East Jerusalem), he’s trying to suppress an all-out revolt like those sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Judging from Abbas’ tactics, he may have learned something from Mubarak himself. 

Over the last few months, during rallies in the West Bank in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people, PA forces were brought in to lead their own chants, as well as to threaten and detain protesters. This week, the PA used a similar strategy to quell protests directed more squarely at local Palestinian leadership. 

Throughout the March 15 demonstration in Ramallah, PA undercover Mukhabarat intelligence officers picked off and hauled away key organizers. At one point, the Mukhabarat dragged a female journalist from the Ma’an news agency to the police station after the reporter snapped a photo of an undercover officer. The British national was released shortly after, but by the end of the day at least six Palestinians had been detained and seven taken away by ambulance due to injuries. As darkness fell, security forces lined the street.  

With the implementation of the Oslo Accords it seems Palestinians received yet another force of repression in the Fatah-run PA, which regularly arrests and interrogates Palestinian political activists in the West Bank. The Palestinian economy may have grown in the West Bank, but settlements have expanded even quicker. It’s these realities, as much as factional divisions and Arab uprisings, that are inspiring Palestinian youth today. 

Earlier in the day, Fatah loyalists, including some former PA security members, flooded the square attempting to take center stage. The Fatah crowd sang along to traditional nationalist music emanating from loudspeakers, and unfurled glossy banners of martyred Palestinian leaders across the roads. One poster featured a photo of former Fatah leader Yasser Arafat kissing Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin. 

Uri Davis, from the Fatah Revolutionary Council – the only Jewish-Israeli member of the PLO – spoke to reporters in the middle of the roundabout. “An end to the fragmentation of the Palestinian political arena,” should be the foremost demand he said, attributing the split to colonial divide-and-rule tactics used by the Israelis. 

Davis said that opening the vote to Palestinian communities inside Israel and in the Palestinian Diaspora would make the council more representative. 

Observing those calling for national unity last week, the divisions appeared intractable. Tensions bubbled beneath the surface between Fatah supporters and the leftist and non-aligned activists who had organized the demo, two distinct groups forming, each trying to out-chant the other. 

After Fatah members left in the early afternoon, a core group of about 500 people remained. Young men and women without head coverings led chants. Two men sat atop a 12-foot-high PA road sign promoting “rehabilitation of city center.” They held a poster with a drawing of two young Palestinian women shouting, hair showing beneath loosely tied scarves, in the backdrop the red, white and green of the Palestinian flag. 

Israeli Reaction 

Dozens of Israeli soldiers were also on call at Qalandia checkpoint last Tuesday in case Palestinian protesters in Ramallah moved on it.  

The regional upheavals feed on Israelis’ fears of being surrounded by enemies ready to attack. Israeli security officials were clearly caught by surprise when Mubarak fell. Yet the Israeli government appears unsure how to respond politically to the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, remaining in a wait-and-see mode before making its next move. 

Israel lost its greatest ally in the Middle East when Egyptian president Mubarak resigned. The stability of the state relies on peace with Egypt and keeping a tight lid on Gaza. It is for this reason that Israel is now scrambling to finish constructing the wall along the Egyptian border. 

Netanyahu is hoping a new leader will emerge in Egypt whom Israel can count on to continue Mubarak’s same old policies.  

Meanwhile, Facebook groups have appeared calling for Palestinian refugees to march on Israel’s borders from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories on May 15, dubbing it the “Third Palestinian Intifada.” If such an action does take place, Israel would have a serious security concern on its hands. 

At this point, with the U.S.-funded Egyptian military in firm control and splits beginning to appear in Egypt’s popular uprising, the political situation has the potential to move in Israel’s favor or against it. If one thing is clear, it’s that Israel relies on Palestinian division and will not tolerate a democratic movement from below if it means negotiating with Hamas.  

Carmelle Wolfson is a Canadian journalist based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
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